Insistence of a dream vs. resistance of a society ... The story of a Lebanese Muslim female scriptwriter

bitani
Posted July 14, 2013 from Lebanon

Insistence of a dream vs. resistance of a society The story of a Lebanese Muslim female scriptwriter

Niam recalls the nights in which her head bumped into mom’s sewing machine every time she tried to get up from her mattress in the mid 1980s. She has managed, however, to make it from that small room, which she shared with her three sisters in a rented house in Beirut, to a fancy bedroom in a private apartment at the faculty housing at Hollins University in Virginia today.

Today, my sister Niam Itani is a peace activist, who craves to show the world through her scripts that war is but the source of endless social problems. Niam’s writings focus on social issues, particularly relating to the effects of war on vulnerable groups in society (i.e., children, women, etc.). Yet, a glimpse of Niam’s life journey is much more touching than any of her scripts, for she faced many challenges to be the empowered woman she is today.

She was born in 1980, two years ahead the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, as the third daughter of a lower middle class Muslim couple. The invasion, along with the 1989 civil war in Lebanon, has tremendously impacted her life. War dominated the young child’s life and she feared everything that reminded her of the dark nights when they used to flee to the shelter, with the ambience of scared humans and loud raids. Today, Niam’s adoption of ‘peace’ as a cause is but a further reflection of her childhood experience in a war zone.

Niam was raised in a conservative atmosphere, stemming both from the religiosity of the family and the critical situation in the country. Niam and her siblings were rarely allowed to visit friends or attend birthday parties. “As children we were discouraged from watching television, and there was shortage of electric current, so reading filled our leisure time,” Niam recalls. Stories were thus major companions for Niam in her childhood, whether those she read herself or those she heard from her grandmother. The kids also never went to the cinema, although they would buy films and play them at home under their mom’s supervision. It was until 2005 that Niam first went to a movie theater to watch a film.

As a teenager, Niam wore the veil herself for religious reasons just like everyone around her did. Later on, she gradually associated her identity with it and the veil became a crucial part of her self-perception.

As Niam received her official Lebanese baccalaureate in 1997, she faced her first challenge: to pursue an arts major in university. Such a choice was not expected of her and was not socially appealing. Thus, family and relatives urged Niam to pursue a scientific major. The choice of the major ‘Radio/TV/Film’ was condemned but Niam’s parents did not stop her from pursuing the major she chose. Niam asserts, “my mother has always been supportive and she is my first line of defense in all the hard times I passed through.”

Due to the nature of the program, Niam started returning home late, some days not until midnight or 1 a.m. That was another red line the young lady crossed, for she was rarely allowed out alone in the daytime before her university experience. Then came the scriptwriting course that made Niam discover her passion. “I fell in love with filmmaking and started thinking then about doing an MFA,” Niam explains. Of the universities recommended by her scriptwriting instructor, Niam only could afford to pay the application fee of the New York University. In another courageous step, she secretly applied to the program and was accepted. Yet, Niam’s parents were unable to pay the tuition fees and could not allow her to travel alone at the age of 19.

Niam did not find a suitable career in her field upon graduation, in light of the discrimination against veiled applicants in Lebanon at many institutions. She spent a year living home exploring the filming field in the Arab world, hoping to find a scholarship for arts majors. Then, she hesitatingly enrolled in a masters program in education, at the suggestion of her parents.

Developments then occurred in Niam’s professional and emotional life. On the professional level, Niam met a director who recommended her to the head of a local production company. This marked the beginning of Niam’s professional filmmaking career. On an emotional level, Niam fell in love with a young man she met online. Niam convinced her parents to get to know him personally, and they hesitatingly approved her engagement. However, family pressure and Mohammad being of a different nationality forced the couple to end their engagement. Meanwhile, to this day, there are no laws in Lebanon that guarantee Lebanese women’s transmission of nationality to their husbands or children.

About the same time of her emotional distress, the company where Niam worked selected her to attend a training sessions at AlJazeera Center for Training and Development in Doha, Qatar. “A few months later, AlJazeera Satellite Channel invited me to attend a second special training session then sent a job offer to me,” Niam recalls. This time, Niam’s parents did not mind that she travels to live and work by herself in Qatar. “Deep down I felt that my parent’s approval was kind of compensation of my breakup with my fiancé,” Niam expressed. Moreover, the atmosphere at AlJazeera was not at odds with the family’s conservative context. Niam moved from a university program where she was the only veiled student, and where she used to sneak to an isolated space to pray, to an institution that hired veiled employees, and, to Niam’s surprise, “had a prayer room!”

Niam worked hard for five years at AlJazeera, spending as few holidays and saving as much of her salary as possible. This was in accordance with her plan to pursue her dream and do her MFA. She finally enrolled in a low-residency MFA program in 2008. After receiving her MFA from Hollins University in 2010, there was no further reason to stay at AlJazeera Channel. It was time to passionately advance in the career she independently chose for herself: to write and direct her own films.

Niam submitted a script she wrote, ‘Super.Full’, to the Doha Film Institute. Niam wrote the script earlier in a scriptwriting lab in Zanzibar, and it received the best screenplay award at that workshop. The institute thus sponsored the making of the film, and so Niam shot her short film in Qatar before resettling in Beirut in November 2010. She then submitted the film to different film festivals worldwide, until it first featured at the Seattle International Film Festival. Later on, ‘Super.Full’ played in many other film festivals and was selected as a finalist in ‘Your Film Festival’ competition that was presented by YouTube and Fly Emirates last summer. From over 15,000 entries from around the world, ‘Super.Full’ made it to the ten finalists of the competition and played at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. “Super.Full is a film about a very poor couple living in a very rich city,” Niam comments, adding that the piece builds on juxtaposition between poor and rich, money and happiness.

Today, Niam is working on a feature film inspired by her own experience of the recurrent wars in Lebanon, ‘Shadow of a Man’. She is concurrently working on a feature documentary about children in war ‘Twice Upon a Time’, and collaborating on another film about women & children in war in Sudan. These films will be released by ‘placeless films’, a film consultation company she founded recently in Lebanon. While you are reading this, Niam is in Hollins teaching a graduate Film Production course, after two years of instructing experience in scriptwriting at her undergraduate institution, the Lebanese American University.

Niam followed her dream and, best of all, made it a reality. Yet she is still pursuing other dreams. “It is very important for me to encourage young people to do what they like and want and not what society asks them to do; a person must please him or herself and not the people around,” she asserts. On a more personal level, Niam wants to devote her time to filmmaking, with her works focusing on social issues. “The issue that is of utmost importance to me is that of children in war, with the general theme of war/peace as the core of my works,” Niam explains.

If you have a dream, it is never late to pursue it. Niam is in filmmaking today, though it is not a decade yet since she first walked into a cinema!

You can watch Super.Full at this link:

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Profiles

Comments 25

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Mukut
Jul 15, 2013
Jul 15, 2013

Beautiful! Inspiring Bayan ! I loved your profile and the way you narrated her story. Brilliant work !

Yes, if you have a dream, its never too late to pursue it.

love and hugs,

bitani
Jul 16, 2013
Jul 16, 2013

Thank you Mukut (F)

pelamutunzi
Jul 16, 2013
Jul 16, 2013

niam is inspirational. i have used that word a lot today but thats because that is how many profile stories are striking me. to follow a dream and give up on a fiance to have aher parents approve at a very critical time is inspirational. and the fact that she has receive so many accolades and awards makes it even better. hats off to niam and may her light continue to shine. i especially like her themes and desire to wrk on peace and children's stories. thanks for the piece, enjoyable and powerful

Nadz
Jul 16, 2013
Jul 16, 2013

Your narration of Niam's story was very compelling Mukut. I enjoyed it, truly a powerful woman. Nadz

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby
Jul 17, 2013
Jul 17, 2013

Dear bitani,

This piece is eloquent and highly inspirational -- thank you! You've presented the uplifting story of Niam with integrity and a truly professional voice. I, too, have a particular interest in children and the effects of war upon them, and not only would I like to see Niam's film, "Super.full," but I'll eagerly await, "Twice Upon A Time," -- beautiful title! bitani, Niam was a perfect choice for your Module 1 assignment, and I have great respect for you both! With Strong Support, Sarah
Iryna
Jul 17, 2013
Jul 17, 2013

Very touching video, "Super. Full". And it is two times more interesting to watch it if you know who is behind of this story. It's obvious that except of great energy Niam has a great heart! You draw a beautiful portrait, Bitani, and the video makes it so much alive.

Greetings, Iryna

bitani
Jul 17, 2013
Jul 17, 2013

Pela, Nadz, Sarah, and Iryna:

I am glad you liked my piece, and i appreciate the time you devoted to have a look on it and comment.

love, Bayan

Olanike
Jul 17, 2013
Jul 17, 2013

Niam is such an inspiration, who weathered the storms of discrimination to become a high flyer. Your writing is captivating and I enjoyed reading it.

Impressive post!

Warmly, Greengirl

Usha RS
Jul 17, 2013
Jul 17, 2013

Well done! An inspiring profile of a woman working for peace by pursuing her dreams for a more peaceful world and portraying that in her art. I look forward to reading more from you. You are breaking down the stereotypes of Muslim women to reveal the complexity and gifts that unique women are contributing to the world. Thank you! Usha x

JaniceW
Jul 18, 2013
Jul 18, 2013

Being your sister, it is clear that she is an inspiration to you. This is a wonderful story of a woman who never lost sight of her dream and over time, found a way to make it a reality. You provided great context for the challenges she faced in pursuing that dream, weaving in the struggles with her tenacity and single-mindedness.

I look forward to watching Super.Full.

JaniceW
Jul 18, 2013
Jul 18, 2013

I just watched the film. What a lovely tender movie. Kudos to your sister. I am so glad you shared her story with us.

Aminah
Jul 18, 2013
Jul 18, 2013

wow. just wow Bayan. I am so impressed with Niam's journey in achieving her dreams. And you have done a wonderful job of writing her story so effortlessly - very engaging.

And no wonder Super.Full became so successful. I enjoyed watching it.

Precious Nkeih
Jul 20, 2013
Jul 20, 2013

I am glad to read about a woman like this who is making great use of the power in the pen. I want to be like her when I grow up. Well done!

Precious

bitani
Jul 22, 2013
Jul 22, 2013

green girl, Usha, Janice, Aminah, and Precious

thank you for your kind comments.

love,

Bayan

libudsuroy
Jul 23, 2013
Jul 23, 2013

Hi, Bitani, I celebrate with you the strong bond of sisterhood that you share with Niam. Your sister's story shows us how dreams are realized by courage, persistence and hard work. And a sister's ever-loving presence, affirmation and support.

bitani
Jul 31, 2013
Jul 31, 2013

Thank you Lina, your words mean a lot to me.

Delphine Criscenzo
Jul 26, 2013
Jul 26, 2013

Dear Bayan,

What a wonderful story of resilience and perseverance. Your sister is a strong woman who was able to learn to work within the constraints of society without giving up her dreams. She is a strong role model and a leader for the next generation of Lebanese girls who are now assured they can be film makers. You did a great job at giving some context to the reality and life of your sister, so cultural, societal and family context. Though you were telling the story of your sister, you did not include yourself in the story and tried to stick to what she said instead of your own interpretation of how you perceived your sister's story. This was a difficult task and you succeeded. I am curious to know if other women Lebanese film makers influenced your sister, or other film makers in general. Great job! Cheers,

bitani
Jul 31, 2013
Jul 31, 2013

thank you Delphine for your kind reply.

there are only few Lebanese filmmakers, so mostly those she was first inspired by are international filmmakers like pedroalmodovar, majid majidi...i am recalling the ones i know she likes.

thanks again for your comment

Maura Bogue
Jul 29, 2013
Jul 29, 2013

This is an incredible story! Niam seems like a true inspiration. You developed the story nicely and included everything a reader would want to know about Niam. Great work!

Next time, try and focus the story a little more. Instead of telling the reader about Niam's whole life, maybe stick to one defining event in her life that makes her noteworthy.

Great work!

Best, Maura

bitani
Jul 31, 2013
Jul 31, 2013

Thank you Maura for devoting the time to read my piece and comment on it. I much appreciate this.

Courtney Calardo
Jul 31, 2013
Jul 31, 2013

Thank you for your piece Bitani, it really resonated with me.

I think the first years of separation from our parents and independence can be some of the most trying, challenging years of our life, forcing us to fight for what we believe in with little reinforcement in the beginning. I think that's why so few stick to it. Instead the compromise in one way or another. Yet, here is a woman who survived so many obstacles to stand up for what she believes in and do what she loves.

This piece portrays a universal message that life can be hard, but the hard times often define who we are and who we want to become, and if we practice patience and persevere with great determination, we can actualize our dreams.

Bravo!

bitani
Jul 31, 2013
Jul 31, 2013

Thank you for your kind and encouraging comment :)

Robyn Lui
Jul 31, 2013
Jul 31, 2013

Hi Bitani, I really enjoyed reading Niam's story and her journey to pursue her passion and realise her dream to be a filmmaker. You made me want to see her films, and this is the ultimate indication of your power as a storyteller. Well done!

bitani
Aug 12, 2013
Aug 12, 2013

Thank you Robyn :) i hope you liked the movie as well

Yvette Warren
Aug 21, 2013
Aug 21, 2013

You did a wonderful job of telling your sister's story. It is wonderful for both of you that your mother stands behind your efforts. I hope you will branch out to finding other women of such hard-won success to profile. Blessings to you, Bitani. Yvette